MACO Museum of Asian Art and Culture

In Arcidosso, Tuscany, Italy

Building Bridges and Creating Connections: MACO and the British Museum

The Mirror recently asked us to describe our recent collaboration with the British Museum and their ResearchSpace team and a few of the ways that it will be used to help us to share the Namkhai Collection with our Community members around the world.


ResearchSpace (RS) is arguably the best software in the world for detecting and mapping the intricate interdependencies of our world’s cultural heritage. It includes the first search engine specifically built to find and manage resources in the museum environment that employs the linked open data standard developed by the International Council of Museums (ICOM – UNESCO), CIDOC-CRM. A short video presentation of RS is available on our home page:

Rather than simply cataloguing an artifact, ResearchSpace permits us to describe the relationships between artifacts, ideas and resources within their broader cultural context. In this way, RS improves access to digital artifacts by providing more relevant ways of revealing the relationships between them.

Installation of the Zhangzhung exhibition in the Sala della Meridian of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli (MANN) © 2021 Namkhai Collection / MACO

Our contribution

To manage their collection of over 5 million artifacts, the British Museum uses RS together with a robust commercial collection management system (CMS). Since their collection management system is beyond the needs and financial means of a small museum, like the MACO, we proposed and funded a customization of RS, which substitutes their CMS with an open source institutional digital repository, called FEDORA (Flexible Extensible Digital Object Repository Architecture). FEDORA is used by the Smithsonian, the British Library, and many universities around the world. (

White Tara. Gift to Chögyal Namkhai Norbu by Kyabjé Chatral Rinpoche, Sangye Dorje (CNN01082016). © 2021 Namkhai Collection / MACO

During the course of our collaboration with the British Museum, they decided to adopt our customization as part of their next major software release of RS. As a consequence, the BM has invested a considerable amount of their own resources in the realization of this upgrade. Thanks to the MACO’s contribution, RS is now poised to become an open source platform for connecting the collections of cultural heritage institutions, large and small, everywhere.

Although the MACO has hosted two international conferences with workshops on digital cultural preservation (in 2013 and 2016), the project would not have been possible without the patient mentoring of Tom Garnett, a longtime Dzogchen Community member, retired digital librarian of the Smithsonian Institute and the director of the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL). Thornton Staples, another retired digital librarian from the Smithsonian and of course, Dominic Oldman, the director of ReseachSpace are all responsible for helping us to realize this project.

1. Building bridges: Building a collaborative research environment with RS

In 1988 Chögyal Namkhai Norbu led an intrepid group of travelers on a 7000 km expedition over the Tibetan Plateau and along the Silk Road, crossing two deserts and descended into the second lowest place on earth, the Turfan Depression, to rediscover Kyunglung Ngüka, the “Silver Palace of the Garuda Valley”, southwest of Mount Kailash, which Rinpoche identified as the last capital of the ancient kingdom of Zhangzhung.

Chögyal Namkhai Norbu crossing the bridge to Khyung Lung dNgul mKhar. © 2021 Namkhai Collection / MACO

In 2016 a group of Bon-po monks from the Gurugyam monastery, the seat of the contemporary Bon-po master and traditional doctor, Jigmed Namkhai Dorje, near Kyunglung, discovered an ancient  tomb and contacted Chinese archeologists, coordinated by a team from Sichuan University, led by Prof. Huo Wei, the Dean of History and Culture of Sichuan University.

The tomb revealed silk shards and the second oldest sample of tea ever discovered, dated to the second century. Their discovery provided the first concrete proof that a branch of the Silk Road crossed the Tibetan Plateau by the second century and a vindication of Rinpoches assertion that Zhangzhung was once an important center of culture and commerce.

For those interested in knowing more about the discoveries in Gurugyam, see:

Stupa near Gurugyam Monastery, Ngari Province, Tibet. 1988 © 2021 Namkhai Collection / MACO

Inspired by Rinpoche’s historic expedition and the recent discoveries by Chinese archeologists at the Gurugyam site, we began planning an exhibition about the hitherto unexplored relationship between Tibetan cultural origins in Zhangzhung and the movement of peoples, ideas and commerce across the Silk Road.

Project milestones

In 2016 we met with Prof. Huo Wei in Chengdu and began discussions about the planning of the exhibition, which explores the history of Italian and Chinese archaeological discoveries in Zhangzhung, in collaboration with the Museum of Sichuan University.

In 2017 Rinpoche invited Prof. Huo to Tenerife and on this occasion signed a memorandum of understanding formalizing MACO’s collaboration with the Museum of Sichuan University.

An interview with Prof. Huo Wei is available here: 

In 2018 the project was extended to include the Archaeological Museum of Naples (MANN), with another MoU signed with Dr. Paolo Giulierini, MANN director, in Chengdu.

Primarily because of the high esteem in which Rinpoche’s Zhangzhung research is held around the world, a growing international team of archeologists, anthropologists, Tibetologists and media experts from universities in China, Italy, Holland, Australia and the US have been willing to collaborate with us on this project.

A series of short interviews with leading scholars about the importance of Rinpoche’s Zhangzhung research can be seen on our YouTube channel:

The advantages of ResearchSpace in the planning of an international project of this kind is that it has also been designed as a virtual collaborative environment. Our institutional partners and curators will be able to use RS to share their resources and research and collaboratively build the exhibition, transforming our RS archive from an ‘‘excavation site’’ into a ‘‘construction site’’ [An Archival Impulse. Foster 2004: 22].”

2. Making connections: A Silk Road Pilgrimage

Beginning in 2018, we began planning a major update to our permanent exhibitions on the ground floor of the MACO, which was also inspired by Rinpoche’s 1988 pilgrimage to Mount Kailash. 

The project, entitled Silk Road Pilgrimage, aims to broaden the context in which we present the Namkhai Collection to the public by reaching beyond the Himalayas to include the Collection within the broader cultural dialogue between East and West.

A preview of a short introductory video about the project can be seen here:

Silk Road Pilgrimage explores the history of the three principle trade routes: the Northern Silk Road, the Tea – Horse Road across Tibet, and the maritime spice route, following the impressions of pilgrims, travelers, and explorers, as recounted in their travel diaries.

A Buddhist nun performing her circumambulation of Mount Kailash. 1988. © 2021 Namkhai Collection / MACO

Beginning with the diary of Tang Dynasty pilgrim, Xuanzang (602 – 664), on his 17 year pilgrimage to India in search for original Buddhists texts to bring back to China, we discover the splendor of what was once Bamiyan, Gandhara, Kizil, Khotan and Oddiyana and the remnants of the treasures they once held discovered by the explorers of the “Great Game”, such as Aurel Stein and Giuseppe Tucci, who followed Xuanzang’s diary to guide their expeditions.

The Silk Road theme provides us with a rich narrative vehicle through which to explore the exchange of commerce, technology and ideas of our world cultural heritage and the important role Buddhism played in shaping Asian culture.

Even though we plan to dedicate the 45 exhibition displays and media installations of the museum to this project, ResearchSpace will help us enrich these physical exhibits with relevant links to digital resources, and also permit us to create and share links to resources in the collections in other museums. QR codes will be inserted within the exhibits, which will permit the visitors to query RS for media resources and more detailed information. We have already created a number of lesson plans for the local school system which employ QR codes in a treasure hunt, within the museum.

3. Mapping Meditation in Motion

Our exhibition “Meditation in Motion: The World of Tibetan Sacred Dance”, was first staged in Athens in 2017, with the assistance of the Dzogchen Community of Athens, to coincide with the International Dance Preservation Congress (UNESCO) at which our Khaita Joyful Dances Project participated. This was the third traveling exhibition that we curated after the Lukhang Mural exhibitions, which featured the images by Chögyal Namkhai Norbu created in Lhasa in 1981, that were staged in Shanghai (2013) and Beijing (2014) with the help of Dr. Jakob Winkler, Arch. Lorenzo Trucato, of the Miralles Tagliabue EMBT, and the Dzogchen Community of China.

An expanded version of Meditation in Motion was planned as part of the inaugural events in 2018 for Dzamling Gar. Sadly, this has yet to take place.  Our planning for Tenerife, though, was very useful when Merigar asked us to present a commemorative exhibition for Rinpoche in 2019, which we installed in the Project Space galleries, located on our second floor.

Meditation in Motion: the World of Tibetan Sacred Dance. Athens, 2017. © 2021 Namkhai Collection / MACO

Although each staging of an exhibition is unique, each presenting its own set of opportunities and problems to resolve, the need to document an exhibition is essential for the realization of each future iteration. Strangely, though, there are no tools or standards to document all the aspects of an exhibition, with each cultural institution, curator and exhibition designer using a wide range of tools from Excel to SketchUp.

One of the first requirements for our collaboration with the British Museum was our request that RS would provide us with a tool to document exhibitions in a three-dimensional space. They have provided us with a solution which we will use to document our exhibits for both preservation purposes and for our future installations of traveling exhibits.

4. Reconnecting the Sacred

Artifacts are frequently described within a museum environment without adequately appreciating the cultural context in which and for which they were created. This is particularly true when we encounter objects within the exhibition space, which are considered sacred.

When tasked with bringing to the public a unique collection, rich in consecrated ritual objects, assembled by an eminent Buddhist Master, shared in its entirety for the first time, in any western cultural institute, an attempt to explain what constitutes “sacred art” becomes of paramount importance.

Although the MACO presents the treasures of the Namkhai Collection within immersive architectonic narratives and with multi-sensory media installations, until today, we have not really found an adequate way to reconstitute the sacred.

The Semde Assembly Field of Merit Accumulation thangka. (cnn03022016) © 2021 Namkhai Collection / MACO

The first artifact that we will begin using ResearchSpace to describe, will be the magnificent 2 by 3 meter thangka depicting our Semde transmission lineage, displayed in Gallery 9. This comprehensive, unified and inspirational representation of our spiritual heritage is the last exhibit in the museum.

With the help of ResearchSpace and applying the principles of interdependence expressed in our logo as a guide, we will try to reintegrate the sacred within the artifact by reestablishing the relationship between text and image, bringing together poems, songs, biographies and citations from the original Tantras, to, in a sense, let the thangka itself unravel the complex visual language of its own iconography.

This project has benefited from contributions from Robert Beer, author, art historian and thangka painter, Terese Bartholomew, retired curator of the Avery Brundage Collection of Himalayan Art of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, and Adriano Clemente, translator and author with Rinpoche of “The Supreme Source: The Fundamental Tantra of the Dzogchen Semde Kunjyed Gyalpo” (Snow Lion, 1999). To Adriano, together with Jim Valby, who have dedicated their lives to making the Semde texts and commentaries available to us, goes our special thanks and appreciation. To Rinpoche, who has transmitted the unique opportunity of putting the Semde into practice, there are no words which can contain our gratitude. Help has also been offered by Élie Roux of the BDRC (TBRC).

note: The MACO logo, which Rinpoche created, represents a mandala expressing the interdependence of the five traditional sciences of Buddhist studies blossoming from the primordial science of spiritual practice.

Conclusion – Building our future

“and the future is long”

Chögyal Namkhai Norbu


Born from the inspiration, generosity and very concrete efforts by Rinpoche and the entire Namkhai family, the MACO is the fruit of 40 years of ongoing collaboration between the Dzogchen Community of Merigar and the Comune di Arcidosso, which we celebrated this year. 

The MACO is yet another miraculous manifestation of Rinpoche’s untiring efforts and infinite compassion. Home of the Namkhai Collection containing over 5000 artifacts from around Asia, the conceptual design of the Museum also strives to reflect Professor Namkhai’s multifaceted research interests, found in over 250 publications.

Giving back

The international network which Rinpoche’s teaching and travels knit together into our Sangha has contributed significantly in many ways to the town of Arcidosso, not least of which is the MACO. From the planning to the construction of the MACO, we have mercilessly tapped the goodwill of our members around the world by calling upon volunteers and our numerous architects, engineers, scholars and creative professionals from many fields, to contribute their talents to the realization of the project – all of which they have offered, at no cost.

With their contribution and their dedication to Rinpoche and his vision, what would have been simply a small rural museum on a Tuscan hillside became something marvelous, comparable only to what one might expect to find in a major metropolitan area.

Samantabadra by Drugu Choegyal Rinpoche
Preparatory painting for Temple of the Great Contemplation, the Merigar Gonpa. © 2021 Namkhai Collection / MACO

Most certainly we can and, with everyone’s help, will do more, but this labor of love is also an expression of our Community’s gratitude to the town of Arcidosso, who have most certainly shown us their mutual appreciation through their continued support.

And this is essential, because the museum lives (or dies) based on its relevance to its local community, with the services that it provides. We strive to address this for example through the programs and tours that we have developed for the local school system. ResearchSpace will help us to reinforce our relationships with local schools and cultural institutions, with new and innovative services, which include opportunities for smart working in the heritage sector and the promotion of cultural tourism, online.

With over 766,000 Euro of both private and public contributions since 2013, until now the MACO has been able to support its activities and remain open to the public autonomously, without weighing on the budget of Merigar. 97% of these funds were allocated to specific projects with 3% going towards MACO operations and salaries. This does not include the rental of the ex-chancellery which hosts the MACO, or the cost of heating it or our electricity, all of which are offered by the Comune di Arcidosso, in exchange for the proceeds from ticket sales.

As a consequence of the COVID epidemic in London, the delivery of the RS software, expected in November 2020 was delayed until the end of May 2021. We have done our best to stretch our available funding to address this delay, photographing the Namkhai Collection and digitizing its resources, but as of June 2021 our funding will be finished.

Although we had been assured of continued funding in 2022 by the Union of Italian Buddhists earlier this year, recent changes, primarily of a bureaucratic nature, have now rendered this potential support, sadly, improbable.

As a concluding example of how we intend to use ResearchSpace, we hope in part to offset this loss of funding by offering our Community members, Gars and Lings an opportunity to virtually adopt an artifact in the Namkhai Collection. Donations can also be extended to single displays or entire exhibitions. In return for your contributions, we will provide you with access to RS, where you will be able to follow our progress as it evolves, accessing resources as they come online, such as exhibits, videos, images and over 25,000 digital books and articles, related to the Collection. As always, all financial contributions to the MACO are received and managed by our very competent administration in Merigar. Information about this project will be published on – – and, as always, communicated through the voice of our Community – The Mirror.

Start-up funding for this project has been provided by the Union of Italian Buddhists (UBI) and the local municipality of Arcidosso. ResearchSpace is funded by the Mellon Foundation. If you would like to know more or contribute to any of our projects please visit:

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